Those Difficult Conversations
“If you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always gotten.” -Tony Robbins
A couple of weeks ago, a friend of ours sent in a transcript of a conversation they had with their best friend/ex boyfriend/it’s complicated. They asked us to assess the underlying conflict. Essentially, we believe that the conversation went sour because the dynamic was based on the track of fear, rather than the track of love (in the Relationship Zen sense). In other words, it went down like so many negative conversations because it was characterized by sarcasm, criticism, defensiveness, and avoidance.
We sincerely thank our friend for being so open-minded and for sharing the conversation with us; we hope that this article will help to shed some light on the issues.
Developing the following strategies was a long process and continues to be so – in fact, we just had some heated debates this weekend! However, the benefits of these strategies are blissful because they BREAK the vicious cycle of unhealthy conversations. As the above quote states,you have to switch it up if you want to see different results.
Although we still experience emotional conversations, they are rarely detrimental; we’ve realized that conflict is not bad when it’s converted into a learning moment. It’s HOW we deal with the conflict that defines our relationship. Let’s begin by explaining how we identify when our conversations become unhealthy.
Signs that your conversations are detrimental to your relationship:
It wasn’t until we read John M. Gottman’s The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work that we were able to identify signs of our unhealthy convos. (By the way, we didn’t read this because we are getting married, we read it because knowledge is power. So don’t be startin’ rumours :P.)
Gottman (1999) has a 90% accuracy rate in predicting marriage or divorce after watching couples interact for only 3 minutes. He states that “certain kinds of negativity, if allowed to run rampant, are so lethal to a relationship that [he] call[s] them the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse” (27). These horsemen are criticism, contempt, defensiveness, and stonewalling (27-34). When they are present in your discourse, you have a problem that you need to fix.
Let’s break them down quickly:
A difficult conversation could start off with a simple complaint from you to your partner because you are dissatisfied about a situation to do with your relationship: “this [insert negative issue] keeps coming up in our relationship and I feel like it’s not getting better.”
Not satisfied with the recurring situation and exhibiting a little too much ego and pride because you feel ignored or righteous, you may start to criticize their character for allowing the situation to reoccur: “it’s because you’re the type of person who is always [insert negative traits].”
Still not satisfied with the way things are going and beginning to exhibit anger and aggression for a lack of change you (or they) become contemptuous: “You’re such a [insert name-calling + add an eye-roll or sneer]”
Now that your ego is hurt you are feeling fearful, or shameful, or guilty and you get defensive: “I only did that because YOU did [insert accusation and blame].”
And finally, you may feel apathy or despair and you may try to stonewall because you feel you’re getting nowhere with the problem: “I don’t want to talk about this anymore…” Or, you might be the type that simply walks away.
This is generally followed by sighs, tears, and then a band-aid make up session. Is this familiar to anyone? The problem keeps on coming back until the “Apocalypse” occurs. What we started to do is to identify the Four Horsemen EARLIER in the process.
Tips for catching & dismounting the “Four Horsemen”:
Stopping to have a difficult conversation
Most of the time we can do it. It started with each of us trying to individually shift our focus from each other’s projection of negativity to our own sources of negativity during a heated discussion. In other words, we tried to become conscious (in the now) of our thought process during difficult conversations. Our trick to doing this is to:
Realize and acknowledge that it isn’t their fault that you feel hurt, mistrusted, or alone.You are responsible for your reactions and for your happiness.
Realize that your negative reaction is due to negative frequencies that you own at that moment in time. Those frequencies cause you to react in a defensive, aggressive, or withdrawn way. These frequencies include: shame, guilt, apathy, grief, fear, desire, anger, and the common one – pride/ego.
Understand this:“To effectively communicate, we must realize that we are all different in the way we perceive the world and use this understanding as a guide to our communication with others.” – Anthony Robbins
We wrote about the role of personality differences in conflicts in a previous post.
Our unhealthy conversations stem from either one (or both) of us experiencing one or more of those frequencies and then projecting it onto each other while disregarding each other’s vastly different world views. This is bad because negativity, assumptions, and ignorance feed on more negativity and can indeed lead to a downward spiral – a kind of “Apocalypse”. Steps 1 – 3 can help to stop the cycle dead in its tracks.
Converting conflict into a learning moment:
Instead of continuously being defensive or aggressive, we become mindful of our own frequencies (step 1), become responsible for choosing our reactions (step 2), and open our minds (step 3). When we follow these steps, we are able to choose more positive reactions to the other person’s words. For example, we begin validating each other’s feelings and asking open-ended questions to better understand each other’s world view (track of love).
Validating involves accepting the person for who they are (not judging): “I see you’re stressed because you’ve had a long day at work”, “It must have been frustrating for you when you noticed the dishes weren’t done”, “I know how you like to plan your day and me showing up late must have been a real turn-off”, etc. A person is more willing to listen to you if you can show that you accept what they are going through. Now you can move towards common ground by using questions.
Open ended questions involve taking an interest in the other person’s world view: “Tell me more about how you felt when I did that?”, “What about the situation made you angry?”, “What do you understand from what I am saying?”, “In your opinion, where did we go wrong?”. This form of active listening allows us to validate our world views and to work our way to the root causes of problems.
TONE is also important. If you are no longer speaking from fear (anger, guilt, jealousy, etc), your tone will be genuine. If you are still experiencing negativity, wait before you talk… take a mindfulness break.
The above tips continue to help us to recycle a conflict into a learning and growing moment. We can honestly say that through this difficult but amazing process we have chosen to build a productive and genuine relationship with ourselves and each other. It takes a lot of work, but we keep trying. Please continue the conversation on this difficult topic via our Facebook group. It’s open to anyone who is open-minded and who wishes to connect in an inclusive and positive environment.
“Speak when you are angry – and you’ll make the best speech you’ll ever regret.” -Dr. Laurence J. Peter